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House of Commons

Thursday 13 February 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Rural Post Offices

1. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): What recent representations she has received regarding the future of the rural post office network. [97616]

The Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness (Mr. Stephen Timms): We regularly receive representations about postal services and the network, and the recent announcement of additional funding for rural post offices has been particularly warmly welcomed.

Gregory Barker : Does the Minister understand the huge damage that the Government's imposed changes to the way in which benefits and pensions are paid at post offices will do to the rural post office network? Only this morning, I spoke to the postmaster in Robertsbridge, who told me, "I can't see us surviving—we will die on our feet." What is adding insult to injury and making matters even worse is the fact that the Government have delayed the marketing of the new Post Office card account until 24 March, just one week before the new system is launched on April fool's day. Will the Minister instruct those responsible to bring forward the marketing scheme to help at least to mitigate some of the damage that their proposals will do?

Mr. Timms: The hon. Gentleman might take the view that it would be a good idea to maintain ration book technology for benefit payment, but if so he is in a very small minority. Our view is that up-to-date technology is the way in which to assure the Post Office of a successful future. The Post Office card account is on track to be in use from April, as was always intended. It will be phased in over a two-year period, as we always said that it would be, and we will manage the migration carefully to ensure that the new arrangements do not inconvenience benefit recipients. The availability of that technology will mean that rural post offices, as well as

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post offices in urban areas, will be able to offer modern services in a way that meets the needs of today's customers. That is very good news for the Post Office.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I accept what my hon. Friend says, but there is clearly something of a shortfall in terms of the information that is going out, and we need to communicate how the new system will work. One of the ways in which we could set about that is to work through the parish and town council network to ensure that those bodies are fully informed about the Post Office account and encourage their constituents to consider its opportunities and, more particularly, that they work closely with sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses to ensure that those services are in place not only now, but in the future.

Mr. Timms: I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important to do everything that we can to communicate accurate information about how the new arrangements will work. I believe that new information will be in post offices from next week, and that once it is widely available people will recognise the benefits of the new arrangements.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): Millions of vulnerable people will have heard with dismay the Minister's contemptuous reference to ration book technology. It comes ill from a Minister who has pretended to be concerned about the way in which benefits are paid to dismiss the anxieties felt by people in constituencies all over the country. Is it not the case that the best way to help rural post offices and their customers, including benefit claimants is, first, to make it clear that anyone who wishes to continue to receive their benefit in cash can do so and, secondly, to reverse the ridiculous policy of effectively preventing those Post Office customers who wish to open a card account from doing so? Only a Government who know nothing about business and care nothing about vulnerable people or rural communities would behave in such a disgraceful manner.

Mr. Timms: The requirement that people who wish to obtain their benefit in cash at the Post Office without charge should continue to be able to do so has been central to all the arrangements that we have put in place, and that will be the position once the change to automated credit transfer—ACT—happens from April.

As to the difficulty of obtaining a Post Office card account, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take some comfort from the fact that, on the latest figures, almost 40 per cent. of Veterans Agency benefit recipients have chosen to opt for a card account, so it is not impossible, as he suggests. We are ensuring that everybody can make the choice that is right for them.

On rural post offices, in the last quarter of last year, the most recent period for which we have data, there was no net reduction in the number of rural post offices. It is probably the first time that that has been the case for at least 30 years, and it shows that the steps that the Government are taking are working.

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Women Entrepreneurs

2. Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly): What recent measures have been taken to encourage women entrepreneurs. [97617]

The Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions (Alan Johnson): A national strategic framework on women's enterprise is currently being developed by the Small Business Service, in conjunction with Prowess—Promoting Women's Enterprise Support—and a cross-Government policy group. That strategy will provide a cohesive, co-ordinated and long-term approach to women's enterprise in the UK.

Mr. David : Does my hon. Friend agree that there is an urgent need to tackle sexist bias in the media? The Western Mail yesterday included a feature on Welsh entrepreneurs. It stated that Welsh business "men" were more positive and looking to build on their current success. It contained seven photographs of men but none of women.

Alan Johnson: I agree that treatment by the media is a barrier that women have to surmount. However, the media probably take their lead from other political parties, which have a small representation of women. Perhaps they could do their bit to help the media enter the 21st century.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): To prevent bias such as that displayed by The Western Mail and in the spirit of equal opportunity, will the Minister confirm that the same measures will be made available to male entrepreneurs?

Alan Johnson: I can confirm two things. The Government introduced maternity allowance for self-employed women for the first time. Many women entrepreneurs experience difficulty because their partners work and cannot find time to help with child care. From April, the Government will introduce measures to ensure that people's right to apply for flexible working allows the man in the relationship to help the woman entrepreneur better to fulfil her objectives and ambitions.

Credit Card Regulation

3. Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): If she will make a statement on credit card regulation. [97620]

The Minister for Energy and Construction (Mr. Brian Wilson): Credit cards are regulated under the Consumer Credit Act 1974, which provides protection for consumers taking out an agreement. A review of the Act was announced in July 2001. As part of it, we will publish a consultation on the simplification of the credit advertising regulations in the summer.

Norman Lamb: I thank the Minister for that reply. Earlier this week, MasterCard was exposed for ripping off retailers to the tune of hundreds and millions of pounds, and especially for discriminating against small retailers. The consumer ultimately bears the cost.

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The spotlight now turns on the misleading annual percentage rate figures, which make it impossible for consumers to calculate the cost of credit. I appreciate that a review is being conducted, but what is the time scale for it? It has dragged on endlessly. When will the Government act to give consumers the protection that they need?

Mr. Wilson: This is not normally my territory, but I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's comments. The best way in which to deal with the unsolicited conflicting and confusing offers that come through our letterboxes is to file them in the bin.

The outcome of the review will be published in the summer. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman's point that consumers must be protected and that having no consistent base of information confuses rather than protects. The industry is good at exploiting that trick.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): Can my hon. Friend do something in the review about the outrageously high rates of interest that many leading stores charge for their in-store credit cards? Some charge interest of 30 per cent. APR, which is absurdly high at a time of historically low interest rates.

Mr. Wilson: Again, I have great sympathy with those comments. If consistent information were published, people would be better able to read across. Every trick in the book is used to inveigle people into costly agreements. There is a fine line between the nanny-state approach and providing decent protection from such misinformation or, at best, confusing information. That is the purpose of the review, and I shall convey hon. Members' views and their desire for urgency to my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Melanie Johnson), who normally deals with those issues.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): Does the Minister agree that the individual must take some responsibility for personal credit card debt?

Mr. Wilson: That is precisely why I tried to establish a balance. We cannot offer individual protection to everyone who should understand the information but chooses not to. Many people are the authors of their misfortune. We are trying to strike a balance. People should be able to get information that allows them to compare different offers, see the interest rates that will be charged, and work out what they will end up paying. However, at the point where the state intervenes to ensure that that information is available, I would agree with the hon. Gentleman that we cannot protect people from their own misjudgments.

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